Auto Design

Students Design a Car That Gets 2,824 MPG


The winner: Alérion, Supermileage by team Alérion Supermileage from Universite Laval, Québec

Photograph by Doug Benc/AP Images for Shell

The winner: Alérion, Supermileage by team Alérion Supermileage from Universite Laval, Québec

A three-wheeled, teardrop-shaped car has won Shell’s (RDSA) Eco-marathon Americas competition, a yearly contest that pits teams of students against each other in a race to build energy-efficient vehicles.

The winning group, from Université Laval in Quebec, overcame technical setbacks, including excess friction short circuits, to achieve an efficiency of 2,824 miles per gallon. To put that in perspective, the prototype could travel from New York to Los Angeles on less than a gallon of fuel. And that figure is still well below the 3,587 miles per gallon the same school achieved last year. (Université Laval has won five out of the last six Shell competitions.)

The marathon was held in Houston, where teams competed in one of two classes: Prototype, which focuses on maximum efficiency, and UrbanConcept, which takes into account passenger comfort. Cars enter one of seven categories to run on conventional gas and diesel, biofuels, fuel made from natural gas, hydrogen, solar, or electricity. Over several days, teams drive a fixed number of laps around a circuit, traveling as far as they can on the equivalent of a gallon of fuel. Organizers calculate their energy efficiency and award $2,000 to the winner of each class.

The Elroy, UrbanConcept competing for team Mater Dei Supermileage from Mater Dei High School, Evansville, Ind.Photograph by Patric Schneider/AP Images for ShellThe Elroy, UrbanConcept competing for team Mater Dei Supermileage from Mater Dei High School, Evansville, Ind.

Mater Dei High School, in Evansville, Ind., took top honors in the UrbanConcept category for its flying-saucer-like gas-fueled vehicle, reaching an efficiency of 849 mpg. Ford’s (F) electric Focus manages a relatively scant 108 mpg on city streets.

So if a group of students can build a hyper-efficient vehicle, what’s standing in the way of carmakers doing the same? For starters, these prototypes are built to conserve fuel, not for everyday safety and speed.

Still, the projects are inspiring troves of innovative concepts. For instance, an electric-battery vehicle from Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, Minn., featured a 3D-printed steering wheel that included a button for radio communication between the driver and the rest of the team. St. Paul’s School, from Covington, La., fashioned the seat in its diesel vehicle from kombucha, a microbial culture that can be consumed as tea or, in this case, turned into vegetable leather. Perhaps Detroit’s automakers are the ones who should be taking notes.

Lanks is the design editor of Businessweek.com.

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